Carib of Dominica

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Carib of Dominica

ETHNONYMS: Carifuna, Garifuna, Island Carib


Identification. The Carib of Dominica constitute much of what remains of the Native American occupants of the Lesser Antilles at the time of Columbus. Having migrated from the South American mainland, they were in the process of replacing the Arawak when European interference ended their Caribbean expansion. Presently living within the Carib Territory (formerly the Carib Reserve), the Dominican Carib constitute a distinct ethnic minority within the largely Creole population of this West Indian island. Dominican Carib are a mixed-race population, as are many other Dominicans. "Carib" are those Dominicans who have at least one Carib parent and are affiliated with a Carib Territory residence.

Location. The Carib Territory, with an area of less than 16 square kilometers, is located on the east coast of Dominica. Prior to the coming of English and French settlers to the region, this mountainous island was not considered particularly attractive as a Carib home base. As Carib were displaced from other islands, they found a haven in the rugged topography of Dominica, where very few Whites had settled. The Carib sought to avoid detection and attack by European soldiers by establishing settlements and gardens on the isolated windward coast. As a result, the Carib Territory contains no flat land nor any of the island's several rivers and bays, and its shoreline consists mostly of cliffs. By 1900 Dominica was the only island containing a significant number of Carib, and a reservation was established by the English governor at that time to protect this declining ethnic enclave.

Demography. The 1992 population of Dominican Carib was approximately 3,000. They are generally in good health and expanding rapidly, having increased from less than 2,000 in 1975. In the 1930s only about 400 people occupied the Carib Reserve. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there may have been as few as twenty Carib families in all of Dominica. The Carib have been increasing in numbers far more rapidly than has the predominantly Creole population of Dominica.

Linguistic Affiliation. The traditional language, Carifuna or Garifuna, has been retained by Carib populations in Venezuela and by Black Carib in Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, but in Dominica only a few words have been retained by some individuals or reintroduced. There have been no Dominican speakers of the native language since about 1920. All but a few of the oldest residents of the Carib Territory now speak English, and nearly everyone speaks both English and a creole French patois. The usual pattern is that children first learn what is locally called "broken French" and in school learn English, the language of instruction. The French patois, generally understood throughout rural Dominica, is also commonly spoken in the neighboring French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

History and Cultural Relations

Prior to European domination of the Caribbean, the Carib frequently captured Arawak women, who retained much of their own language and culture as Carib wives. With the importation of slaves into the region, many Africans were incorporated into island Carib populations. French Catholic missionaries lived with the Carib beginning in the seventeenth century but claimed very few converts. In this same period, Carib raiding parties from Dominica attacked early White settlements on other islands, in some cases inflicting heavy casualties. Spanish slavers captured some Carib, and European soldiers attempted to exterminate Carib populations on various islands, including Dominica. Eventually, the Carib either died out on other islands, were transported elsewhere, or resettled in Dominica. In the late 1700s, after two centuries of hostile relations with Europeans, the small remnant Carib population on Dominica was generally ignored by the planters who had settled on the west coast. There was far more interaction between the Carib and African Maroons who lived in the interior. By 1850 Carib culture was generally similar to that of other rural Dominicans. Today Carib language and lifestyle are nearly indistinguishable from that of their Creole neighbors.


A few families were living in thatch houses in the mid1980s, but now all structures within the Carib Territory are typical of those found throughout the island, including many that are largely of hand-cut lumber and, increasingly, of concrete. Houses tend to be a bit more scattered than is the case elsewhere, many preferring to live some distance from any neighbors. There are no Carib villages, only single residences and clusters of houses, located near the main road or reachable only by footpath.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The major source of income for most residents of the Carib Territory is banana farming. Some subsistence crops continue to be raised by most households, but since the 1970s there has been a growing trend to purchase more and more of the food consumed. A very few Carib have steady employment that frees them from having to farm. Several others are self-employed as truck drivers, shopkeepers, carpenters, and masons. The Carib council established a food shop, an auto-repair shop, and a concrete-block making operation in the 1980s, and a few Carib own and run small stores as family businesses.

Industrial Arts. Some Carib work part-time making canoes and baskets for sale to outsiders, and a few continue to make canoes and baskets for their own use, but both practices are declining. These canoes are used for fishing in the sea, but only in calm weather, and most fishing expeditions merely acquire enough for the households of the fishermen and perhaps a few relatives. Surpluses are sold to any who gather on the beach at the end of the day. Until 1980 or so, most males were experienced at cutting lumber from local trees and constructing homes. Today, however, more and more new homes are being built of concrete and imported lumber.

Trade. Aside from selling farm goods to outside merchants, some households trade baskets and a few canoes, the only other important exchange items.

Division of Labor. In the past, Carib culture was characterized by a clear sexual hierarchy and a strict division of labor, women having exclusive responsibility for cultivating, harvesting, and processing food. Today women are less politically dependent, and men share fully in agricultural production. Until the mid-1960s, men still relied on friends to help them clear new gardens in the forest and perform other heavy labor such as house building, but modern houses now last much longer and chemical fertilizer enables today's farmers to cultivate the same garden plot for many years before it becomes necessary to clear new land. Young women and adolescent girls are expected to do laundry, carry water, perform kitchen chores, clean house, and care for younger siblings and other close relatives. In contrast, young men and adolescent boys have much leisure for games and idleness. They work very hard at specific tasks, but they are not kept nearly as busy as their female counterparts.

Land Tenure. The Carib have consistently resisted privatizing landholdings. Even though gardens and house sites are considered "owned" by individuals, no deeds or legal titles exist for such holdings within the Carib Territory. Prior to the independence of Dominica in 1978, this land was a reservation, but collective title is now held by the Carib council. Because of a lack of surveys, there are frequent internal boundary disputes between farmers who cultivate adjoining gardens.


Kin Groups and Descent. Social networks of friends and selected relatives structure personal relationships far more than do any exclusive kin-based groups. Which relatives an individual turns to for assistance of any sort depends on personal preferences and calculations rather than any standardized kinship roles. Most children are given the father's surname, and most maintain far stronger ties to the mother than to the father, but the Carib kinship system is bilateral. Godparent/godchild relationships are common and usually considered binding. The only corporate kin-based groups are households.

Kinship Terminology. Carib kinship terminology differs little from that found throughout the English-speaking Western Hemisphere. Common-law spouses are usually identified as "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" rather than by kin terms. The term "mother" may be used by a child in reference to anyone given major responsibility for that child's care, whether she is a birth parent's sister or mother or even an otherwise unrelated female.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Roughly two-thirds of all Carib infants are born to unwed mothers and are referred to by their parents as "illegitimate." Sexual relationships before marriage are expected and accepted. Those that may eventually lead to marriage begin casually, long before a couple establishes a common residence. Formal marriage usually is initiated only after a couple has had one or more children and has lived together for some time. Where each couple establishes a new home depends more on economic calculations than on any kinship-based rule of residence; however, married Carib show a slight preference for locating near the husband's kin. Because most Carib marry individuals from their own neighborhood, couples usually live near relatives of both partners.

Domestic Unit. Household composition is highly variable and shifts over time. Most domestic units contain one (but only one) couple, married or consensually cohabiting, one child or more, and at least one additional relative such as a grandparent.

Inheritance. Property inherited from a parent or other relative is usually divided among children, males and females alike, sometimes while the owner is still living. Much confusion and disputing attend inheritance, since wills are the exception. One sibling may inherit a piece of land and another may inherit the fruit or coconut trees that grow on that land. Houses are usually left to the couple residing there at the time of the owner's death.

Socialization. The care and instruction of a young child is a responsibility shared by many. A mother, grandmother, or other relative may be designated as the primary caretaker of a given child, but others, especially older siblings, are likely to play an active supporting role. If one's mother is very young or employed elsewhere, a more mature aunt or a grandmother may assume the role of mother. On days when the mother is in the hills gardening or on shopping trips to the city, a child is likely to be left in the care of an older sister, half-sister, or cousin. Girls are expected to be interested in schoolwork but willing to skip school to care for preschoolers. Young boys are considered less inclined to take an active interest in school, and very few domestic demands are made on them, in contrast to their sisters. When they are about 8 years old, parental permissiveness declines sharply, and they are likely to receive a great deal of teasing and arbitrary chastisement as well as physical bullying from older brothers. Either parent may administer corporal punishment for any action considered disrespectful, but discipline in young boys is neither anticipated nor highly valued, and adolescent boys are considered too old to be advised by their elders. All children are enrolled in school, but attendance is irregular, standards and expectations are low, and most drop out by age 15.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Voluntary organizations such as adult sports teams, Boy Scout troops, commercial cooperatives, and church congregations provide some structure to social activities, but most of these are short-lived and involve relatively few individuals. Even though adults who live together do not usually pool their belongings, households structure much of the economic activities of members. Dyadic ties between friends are perhaps far more instrumental in shaping the daily activities of most adults, however, especially those of men.

Political Organization. The elected Carib council and Carib chief symbolically represent the Carib people to outsiders, but they have limited power and influence within the territory. There are named neighborhoods within the territory but no corporate communities. The Carib have had a representative in the national parliament since 1975. Political parties vie for Carib loyalties before national elections, but the Carib are neither well represented nor well organized as a political force. At times when the special political status of the Carib Territory was considered to be under attack, however, the residents have shown that they have the capacity to coalesce and act in unison. Presently, there is much consensus that less interference and more funding by the national government would be welcome.

Social Control. Until the mid-twentieth century, a strong ethos of egalitarianism was generally accepted by all Carib, but this attitude has been compromised by an unevenly rising standard of living within the territory. Although jealousy and accusations of witchcraft continue to operate as social-control mechanisms that encourage more sharing of individual wealth, these controls are now least effective when directed at relatively rich Carib. A national police post was established in the Carib Reserve in 1930; these police had little to do in the past, but today a sharp rise in reports of theft keeps them busy.

Conflict. The Carib chief is often described as being responsible for settling disputes among the people, but his role in this regard is very limited. Increasingly, individuals turn to the Dominican court system for addressing grievances with other Carib. Adults often gossip viciously about offending neighbors, and fights sometimes break out between drunken men or jealous women. Bystanders are likely to consider such behavior a great source of entertainment. Many Carib believe that neighbors who live too close to each other are more likely to have disputes, and there are many examples illustrative of such conflicts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Carib beliefs in supernatural forces involve some retention of traditional elements, a long history of Catholic influence, more recent Christian missionary endeavors, and generalized West Indian folklore. Most Carib consider themselves Catholics and continue to have babies baptized by the local priest, but they express little interest in Catholic theology. A growing number have become affiliated with U.S.-based Protestant fundamentalists. Numerous maladies continue to be attributed to witches, but fear of witchcraft is diminishing. The Carib believe that Creoles are the most dangerous witches. Children are told stories about the wondrous magical powers of their Indian ancestors. In the mid-twentieth century, the Carib still relied on magic to protect their gardens from theft, but such remedies are no longer considered effective.

Ceremonies. Religious rituals are performed in churches, but most Carib seldom attend a church service. The Baptists sometimes have a public baptism to initiate new members; these, however, attract very few participants or spectators.

Arts. Traditional drumming has all but died out because the Carib now prefer the music they hear on the radio. Some of the baskets they make, especially those for sale, are aesthetically enhanced by coloring, and some attempts have been made to produce additional arts and crafts for the tourist trade. As art supplies and photographic equipment have become more obtainable, some interest in painting and photography has begun to emerge.

Medicine. The availability of modern medicine has eroded faith in magical cures. The last remaining medicine woman has died, but many still experiment with herbal cures, and some older residents insist that certain formulas are particularly reliable. Many, especially pregnant women and women with babies, take advantage of the services of a local public-health nurse and clinics staffed by a visiting doctor. Maladies that fail to respond to modern medical treatment are likely to be attributed to witchcraft.

Death and Afterlife. When someone dies at home, as is usually the case, the body is laid out and neighbors are encouraged to drop in. Funerals, at which the corpse is buried in a cemetery, are modest; but wakes are far more elaborate, involving a large number of family, friends, and even strangers who may wish to come by if only for food, drink, and games. There is general agreement that the dead have an afterlife, but there seems to be no clear picture of what such an existence entails.


Johnson, Tim (1990). "Carib Gallery." Northeast Indian Quarterly 7(3).

Layng, Anthony (1979). "Religion among the Caribs." Caribbean Review 8(2).

Layng, Anthony (1980). "Ethnic Identity, Population Growth, and Economie Security on a West Indian Reservation." Revista/Review Interamericana 9(4).

Layng, Anthony (1983). The Carib Reserve: Identity and Security in the West Indies. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.

Layng, Anthony (1985). "The Caribs of Dominica: Prospects for Structural Assimilation of a Territorial Minority." Ethnic Groups 6(2-3): 209-221.

Owen, Nancy (1975). "Land, Politics, and Ethnicity in a Carib Indian Community." Ethnology 14(4): 385-393.